Impressions of Africa: history and identity revealed

“Impressions of Africa: Money, metals and stamps”, an exhibition at the British Museum till February next year, offers a fascinating prism through which continent’s history, ideologies and politics can be viewed.

What we can easily dismiss as simply day-to-day necessities are revealed to be vital weapons to cement identity, impose ideology, advance propaganda and forge reconciliation.

When Katanga province seceded from a newly independent Congo in 1961, the fledgling nation used the symbol of copper handa crosses, a pre-colonial currency, to differentiate itself and convey a separate identity. The crosses were used both in coins and stamps. A bank note, only half-designed, is on display with the Katanga’s handa-bearing flag. The brutal civil war that ultimately reincorporated the renegade province had ended before the note could be finished, let alone put into circulation.

Another breakaway, the oil-rich Biafra, which seceded from Nigeria in 1967, used postage stamps in its propaganda war against the Nigerian federal government, which brutally deprived the region of food and other vital resources during the conflict. During the province’s short-lived secession, grim illustrations of starving children and injured men were depicted on stamps sent around the world with the aim of drawing attention to the abuses perpetuated by Nigerian army forces, and stimulate international support

In its pursuit of an empire, France used its currency in Africa to psychologically reinforce its dominance over its territories. Many notes in French west Africa featured the French archetype, Marianne, gazing benevolently, if sternly, on a “helpless” African mother and child. Ironic for a nation which was supposedly built on the foundation of “liberty, equality, fraternity”.

Ghana was the first colonised African country to attain independence (in 1957). It was led initially by the intellectual Kwame Nkrumah who steadily devolved into a power-hungry despot. Nkrumah’s pillaging of state coffers and disastrous economic policies brought the once thriving country to the brink of bankruptcy within ten years.

The first coins and notes after independence both feature the new leader. This was, he said, so that people “know they’re independent” and that ordinary Ghanaians, when they saw his visage, would “see an African just like them”.

You can see his point. What does wonder, though, is role this played in fuelling Nkrumah’s megalomania and personality cult. When your face is on every coin, it’s hard not to think of yourself as elevated to immortality.

I never knew that Ethiopia’s currency in the first half of the twentieth century was the Austrian Maria Theresa Thaler. Apparently those dating back to 1780 were particularly prized. During the Italian occupation of the east African country (between 1936 and 1941), attempts to impose the lire on Ethiopians was largely unsuccessful – the Thaler continued to be used as an act of defiance.

Zimbabwe’s currency, of course, offers a devastating comment on the country’s history: the displayed Z$ 100 trillion note offers a powerful indictment of Mugabe’s ruinous reign. But perhaps the death of the Zimbabwean dollar is the most powerful indictment of all: the disappearance of the sovereign currency, replaced by South African rands, US dollars and Botswana pula, is one sign of how Zanu PF has devastated the Zimbabwean economy and brought suffering to millions of people.

For decades, money in South Africa baldly symbolised minority domination, through the use of only two languages – English and Afrikaans – and iconography only from so-called “white” historical narratives. Thankfully, joyously, this is a thing of the past. Now, South African money is a tool for reconciliation: visible in our new coat of arms, and in the use of all eleven official languages. A two rand coin issued in 2004 commemorated ten years of freedom, with a long line of figures (reminiscent of images of long, curving lines of patient voters at the first democratic elections in 1994) following the South African flag, itself a powerful symbol of unity.

Impressions of Africa is free at the British Museum until 6 February 2011. Next week: Afrodissident visits the British Museum’s South Africa Landscape.


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